We’ve all thought of building a world from scratch. University of Chicago’s ExoTerra Imagination Lab is doing it

CHICAGO — Picture this scenario: Lifespans are now approximately 115 years. And you have slept for 70 years on a starship with 1,999 travelers to get to a new world — a terraformed planet that will become humanity’s new home.

Welcome to the role-playing game that is ExoTerra Imagination Lab. The idea of Ada Palmer, a University of Chicago associate professor of history, ExoTerra is a way for students, faculty, alumni, gamers and sci-fi/fantasy fans around the globe to connect in pandemic times, Palmer said.

The year is 2412 and you’ve reached a new star system called Abaia, 64 1/2 light years from Earth, and you and other colony colleagues must design the new world from top to bottom — cities, laws and which animals to release into the new ecosystem. As the first wave of explorers, you and your fellow travelers must design a civilization that will welcome the 80,000 future colony members who left Earth 30 years ago and are in suspended animation.

The Earth you left behind in 2301 was still thriving, but its people were hard-pressed to fix the global flaws from humanity’s past. The ExoTerra mission’s goal is to build a better world for colonists.

“UChicago is creating this for the pandemic — to give students something that is exciting and community building,” Palmer said.

Another goal of the project: to be a space for exploring the important problems of our world and propose solutions to them in a way that’s not connected to current politics — from schools to incarceration. The project is in the tradition of “speculative resistance,” Palmer said, a kind of science fiction that focuses on other ways the world could be by using imagined places.

According to Ben Indeglia, Palmer’s lead lab assistant, 500 students and 100 volunteers signed up to be a part of the project. And over a dozen University of Chicago faculty members across various departments signed up for the lab in the fall and winter quarters, meaning their students will participate individually and in groups for grades.

There are creative writing students composing vignettes for characters in the new world, volunteers playing extra characters that the students talk to via text and online, like the head of the United Nations back on Earth, the cast of the nearest colony ship, and the artificial intelligence computer on the ship that likes to ask gamers riddles. Other students are handling the art.

Students will name the planet in the next 10 weeks and use Minecraft to build simulated versions of the capital city. In winter quarter, the ExoTerra team will land on the planet, and characters will start building the capital city. By the spring quarter, some exciting finale stages develop. Palmer said the stakes in the lab will change at different points in the 2020-21 school year, representing different stages of populating a planet.

Videos with 3D graphics will feature prominently, with information about what the planet’s composition is, and there will be moments when a new discovery is made and revealed to players. The same is true for confrontations. But most of the lab will be paced by the players themselves.

“It’s definitely a more-the-merrier kind of situation,” Indeglia said. “The more people that join in on the project, the more well-defined the world gets to become, because more people are focusing on different aspects of the world.”

Sorcha Brophy, assistant instructional professor in the undergraduate Public Policy Studies program, is augmenting the curriculum of her class, The Politics of Health Care, by letting her 25 students design the health system for the colony — from hospitals/clinics to innovation/technology.

“Students love to debate the issues. … We spend most of our time talking about what’s wrong with health care and why it doesn’t work,” she said. “It seemed really exciting to be able to put them in the position as potential future policymakers, of thinking about what does work. I think, in this moment, it’s a huge relief to be able to think like that instead of just thinking about all the limitations to fixing what we currently have.”

Matthew Kruer, a University of Chicago assistant professor of history is excited about the lab because he wants it to be something that brings a sense of hope to a moment that can feel dark and isolated.

“One of my goals in participating in the ExoTerra project was just to be able to give students a kind of a simulated version of the forms of regular social interaction that they’re missing out on,” Kruer said.

The collaborative environment allows for a cross-pollination of educational tracks and an exchange of ideas, with experienced players interacting with first-time gamers. And mentorship factors in as well, Palmer said.

“This is a space where … lots of students are asking career advice questions and mentoring questions and getting to talk to adults in fields they’re thinking about entering in a casual way that is harder to arrange outside of the gaming community.”

Audrey Scott, 18, a first-year student from Houston, welcomes the lab’s possibilities during a time when school orientations have changed, given the on-again, off-again self-quarantining that is taking place. She’s a player and a volunteer on the writing and media teams, where she is creating graphics and maps.

“I get to have the entirety of ExoTerra to simply be a playground of academic and social discovery, and that is what’s really amazing about it,” she said. “There’s nothing particularly normal about a campus experience when you’re engaging in this role-playing space exploration. What it really does allow is a sort of bond with my classmates as well as with upperclassmen, faculty members, alumni that I would not have had otherwise with our current situation.”

James Sparrow, associate professor of history and a deputy dean of the University of Chicago’s Collegiate Social Sciences Division, said it was easy to say yes to Palmer’s imagination lab.

“Really creative thinking always crosses boundaries and disciplines,” he said. “We all know how important the imagination is to unleashing intellectual abilities. (The lab) harnesses their imagination and gets them to apply the things that they’re learning in the classroom in new ways. We need to use our imagination much more creatively to foster connections and literally building a world together is a wonderful way to do that.”

The students in Palmer’s class this quarter will choose whether they will design elements of the government system or the higher education system. Either way, Palmer said, they’re going to be reflecting on the different goals that politics and education have had in different centuries of European history as they design a system for the new world.

“The setup here is that the colonists will have had to have built a city ready to hold 80,000 people and created a society ready to welcome those people … to be welcoming of 80,000 immigrants coming from Earth, which has a very different culture, separated by decades of change,” Palmer said. “How do they future-proof their culture to always be welcoming to immigrants is one of the challenges that students are dealing with.”

A book is already being discussed once the inaugural lab is completed, Palmer said.

Thinking about participating in the ExoTerra Imagination Lab but not connected to the University of Chicago? You can volunteer for the project.

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